ASIDE FROM THE OBVIOUS—the low-resolution artifact of the square monochrome image that leaves cirrus-like trails when in motion, all framed in a black box—what is most striking about the pictures produced by the Pixelvision camera is their sense of intimacy. Designed to be used by young, untutored shooters, the teensy plastic lens holds a foggy but constant approximation of “focus” without need of manual adjustment, in both long shots and close-ups as near as a few centimeters from the subject.
This ability to get close—extremely close—was taken advantage of by Sadie Benning. While making short, confessional films as a Milwaukee teenager, she would use the camera to explore the terrain of her face, seen in frame-filling landscapes but rarely all at once, in works including Living Inside (1989) and If Every Girl Had a Diary (1990). Michael O’Reilly’s Glass Jaw (1991) matches the filmmaker’s recounting of two horrific injuries suffered with troubling images, including an invasive probing of the physical aftereffects as allowed by the Pixelvision lens: fingering the surgical staples spaced along a curling cranial wound, and prying back lips to examine the glint of metal on a festering, wired-shut mouth. In some cases, the intimacy goes beyond physical proximity. Benning’s Flat Is Beautiful (1998), in which performers are never seen without hand-drawn masks, contains an entirely unique unsimulated sex scene, while in Cecilia Dougherty and Leslie Singer’s Joe-Joe (1993), which reimagines events from the life of the openly gay 1960s British playwright Joe Orton—his person here bifurcated into a leather-clad San Francisco lesbian couple—we see the Joes in every stage of domestic symbiosis.
Works by Benning, O’Reilly, Dougherty, Singer, and other Pixelvision partisans are playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center during the weeklong “Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision”—the title, of course, borrows from Benning’s short feature/long short, which concerns a fifth-grade Milwaukee tomboy getting a grip on her attraction to girls while living with an outmatched single mother. “Flat Is Beautiful” ties together two major impulses in contemporary repertory film programming: the teleological tendency, which breaks down film history in terms of technological developments and format changes, and the correctional tendency, which celebrates the film-historical contributions of previously marginalized groups or figures. In the case of Pixelvision, it might be said that the technology suggests an ethos. Never touted as an advance in moving-image technology as were, say, Cinemascope or Mini-DV or RealD digital 3-D, the Pixelvision camera was a curious little rivulet branching off from the gushing mainstream of cinema history.
It was made, at first, for kids. The rights for the device that would come to be known as the Pixelvision, or PXL-2000, were sold to Fisher-Price at the 1987 International Toy Fair in Manhattan by a small consortium of inventors led by chief architect and industrial designer James Wickstead. During the brief year it was on store shelves, the camera sold for between $100 and $200, depending on the accessory package; the fact that it would record both audio and video information on your standard audio cassette tape was meant as further enticement for price-conscious consumers. From the moment of conception, Pixelvision seemed out of its time: In a 2000 New York Times piece on the cult status of Pixelvision, Wickstead recalls the bafflement of engineers at his Japanese manufacturer, as they didn’t understand the appeal of a black-and-white camera in the Day-Glo-hued 1980s.
Shoppers, as it happens, didn’t really seem to get it either, but almost as soon as the Pixelvision camera went off the market, a cadre of experimental moviemakers began to adopt it as their own. It may be said that moviemakers working in the maligned medium were eccentrics and renegades by necessity or inclination, not oriented toward creating independent productions for calling-card purposes. Benning and Dougherty—the latter also represented here by her 1991 coming-of-age film à clef Coal Miner’s Granddaughter—were defectors from commercial movies due to their profound investment in queer experience, already a touchy proposition, and their lack of any predisposition to mollify their presentations of lived truths to strive for universalized outreach. Joe Gibbons, the very prototype of a cantankerous outsider artist, began his filmmaking career shooting in an earlier amateur format, Super 8, but around 1990 he started working in Pixelvision, a format whose capacity for smothering close-ups suited the conspiratorial bent of his stream-of-consciousness, monologue-driven work, often based around his buttonholing mute costars. He can be seen in this series musing on mortality to his dog, Woody, in 1991’s Elegy and putting an unhinged Barbie doll through psychoanalysis before she does him in with a ball peen hammer, in 1998’s Multiple Barbie. (Gibbons achieved wider fame not through these works but through his involvement in a bank robbery in Chinatown on New Year’s Eve, 2014, which resulted in a stint at Rikers and being described in the New York Post as a “screwball ex-professor.”)
The Pixelvision camera, a plaything by design, is a frail and fallible piece of equipment not meant to weather the ages, but Pixelvision isn’t dead yet. Included in “Flat Is Beautiful” is a program of recent Pixelvision experiments in “mismatched” 3-D by filmmaker Ben Coonley, who will appear at the Film Society with Dougherty and filmmaker Michael Almereyda for a panel discussion on working in this most niche of niche formats. Coonley, however, is an outlier, and the great majority of the works in FSLC’s program date from an approximately decade-long stretch between the late 1980s and 1990s. An analogy could be made, and indeed was made at the time, between the rough-edged aesthetic of something like Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), which contains a Pixelvision vignette shot at Austin Media Arts, and contemporary operations in music that were being grouped under the label of “lo-fi,” lassoing various musical groups that, either by necessity or for aesthetic purposes, were producing saturated, hiss-prone, flattened-frequency recordings with cheap, obsolescent home-studio equipment such as the four-track Yamaha MT4X and Tascam Portastudio. These groups include Beat Happening and the K Records roster; the Lou Barlow of 1991’s Sebadoh III; and Dayton, Ohio, pop primitives Guided by Voices. In the case of Benning, whose films are freely studded with fragments of tunes, the parallel is more than incidental—her 1992 Girl Power features the Sonic Youth track “Shoot,” sung by Kim Gordon, and strident demo tracks (“Feels Blind,” “Doube Dare Ya”) by Bikini Kill. Later, in 1998, Benning joined the first incarnation of former Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna’s new electronic dance band Le Tigre, working with outmoded synths like the Alesis HR-16B.
With its smeared, postage-stamp image, nothing about the Pixelvision camera lends itself to spectacle; it’s a humble hand-me-down, and altogether, the movies at the Film Society tell the story of a family affair: Benning appears as a performer in Joe-Joe, and her Pixelvision camera was a gift from her father, the filmmaker James Benning, whose 1988 short Table Top will play FSLC alongside Slacker, by Benning’s longtime friend Linklater. While Benning’s and Linklater’s flirtations with the Pixelvision camera were brief, Michael Almereyda made the nearest thing to a “big” Pixelvision production with his Nadja (1994), combining Fisher-Price cinematography with 35-mm black and white to achieve a liquescent, dreamlike effect. (David Lynch is credited as Nadja’s executive producer and has a cameo in the film, and it seems entirely possible that the film might have influenced his own experiments with lo-res imagery, culminating in 2006’s Inland Empire.)
If you want a time capsule of American independent cinema in the 1990s, you could hardly do better than Almereyda’s At Sundance, shot in Park City, Utah, in the pivotal post–Pulp Fiction year of 1995, when independent cinema and careerism suddenly seemed less antithetical than they had in the past. Modeled after Wim Wenders’s 1982 Room 666, a collection of direct-address interviews with filmmakers at that year’s Cannes film festival, At Sundance shows a string of filmmakers responding to the question, What are your feelings about the future of movies? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
Many of the interviewees bypass the issue, going into practiced sales spiels instead. The words “personal vision” are thrown around with a frequency that is alarming and more than a little touching, for American filmmakers were unusually, winningly open to being pretentious in these years. Edward Burns fumbles with an analogy between indie film and alternative music, the most ’90s thing imaginable––that is, until we encounter a ridiculous-newsie-cap-wearing Ethan Hawke and goateed Linklater, who quotes from a 1957 essay by François Truffaut that seems to anticipate the access provided by the Pixelvision camera: “The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel. Like a confession, or a diary, the young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person, and relate what has happened to them.” Benning, like the director of The 400 Blows (1959), an unhappy adolescent who found a lifeline through filmmaking, offers her own manifesto in Girl Power: “I survived because I created my own heroes. Nobody needed to know I was somebody. ’Cause it was my secret.” The words are kept as close and quiet as a whisper, but they resonate like a scream.
Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision runs from August 10 to August 16 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.